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George Raper (1768–1797)

by K. A. Hindwood

This article was published:

George Raper (1768?-1797), seaman and artist, son of Henry and Catherine Raper, is thought to have come from Yorkshire, England. He entered the navy as a captain's servant on 20 August 1783 and on 22 December 1786 joined the Sirius in the First Fleet as an able seaman. He became a midshipman on 30 September 1787, a few months before reaching Botany Bay in January 1788. In 1788-89 he sailed in the Sirius to obtain food from the Cape of Good Hope on a voyage that circumnavigated the globe. In March 1790 when the Sirius was wrecked on Norfolk Island Raper with most of his shipmates remained there. He returned to Sydney in the Supply in February 1791, left the colony soon afterwards in the hired Dutch ship Waaksamheyd, arrived in England on 22 April 1792, by way of the Duke of York Islands, Mindanao and Batavia, and was paid off on 16 May. On 27 June 1793 he was promoted lieutenant and later served in the Cumberland. Admiralty records show that he died in 1797, the note of administration describing him as 'Late Commander H.M.S. Cutter Expedition'.

Raper is known for his water-colour drawings of subjects mainly associated with the First Fleet, the foundation of the colony, the settlement of Norfolk Island, and his voyage home in the Waaksamheyd. He also executed numerous natural history paintings which are among the first done of the birds and flowers of Sydney Cove. Several of his drawings are of Norfolk and Lord Howe Island birds now extinct. The paintings by, or associated with, Raper are in three sets: a volume of 73 mounted sheets (one, no. 56, is now missing) of scenes, native implements, birds, flowers, fish and other subjects, in the British Museum (Natural History); two volumes in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, one of which contains 18 mounted sheets mainly of fish, the other 33 mounted sheets of flower paintings; and a volume of 66 water-colour drawings mostly of birds, in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. In addition a painting by Raper of the 'Settlement of Norfolk Island, May 1790', is in the Mitchell Library. Many of the bird paintings have accurate delineations of flowers or insects added as artistic decorations. Most of the drawings in the British Museum series are signed by Raper and seem to have been those broadly mentioned in his will: 'All other things, Drawing Papers and Books excepted, I desire may be sold at the Mast as is the Custom at Sea'. The paintings were eventually acquired by Osbert Salvin and F. Du Cane Godman and were exhibited to the Zoological Society of London in 1877. More recently, Miss Eva Godman, daughter of F. Du Cane Godman, presented the volume to the British Museum (Natural History).

Only a few 'Raper' drawings in both the Mitchell Library and the Alexander Turnbull Library bear Raper's signature. Some of the unsigned paintings could be by him; others appear to be the work of contemporary artists and were probably collected by his associates.

Select Bibliography

  • K. A. Hindwood, ‘George Raper: An Artist of the First Fleet’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 50, part 1, 1964, pp 32-57 + plates and bibliography.

Citation details

K. A. Hindwood, 'Raper, George (1768–1797)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 27 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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